STEVE SPURRIER SAYS NOT to read too much into his recent decision to turn over playcalling to his namesake son. That is a lot to ask of anyone who has followed his coaching career.
Calling “ball plays” made Steve Spurrier one of the greatest coaches in college football history. He essentially extended his college and professional playing career as a quarterback by continuing to control a game through playcalling on the sideline.
All totaled, in 23 college and professional seasons, Spurrier has called 20,068 plays as a head coach. The advent of video football games never appealed to him much because he got to “play” quarterback, coach and be the mastermind of an offense every time one of his teams took the field. On top of that, he got to design all the plays.
So it is no big deal that Spurrier will no longer call plays for South Carolina? Come on. It is a big deal. It is big because we do not know where this is headed, and we have no idea when or how it will end.
It begs a couple of natural questions, though. Does this change signal that Spurrier believes his offense no longer works at the college level, as it did in the NFL when he threw up his hands midway through his final season with Washington? Does it signal the end might be near for the soon-to-be 63-year-old Spurrier as a coach?
As expected, Spurrier is putting the proper spin on the turn of events, even though history tells us the change has little chance of working. He says his son — Steve Jr. to most and Bubba to his family — is ready to take charge. He says passing off playcalling might extend his coaching career.
“It’s best to turn it over to the guy who is most qualified to do it,” Spurrier says. “Steve Jr. has been with me. He knows (the offense), and he’s anxious to do it. He’ll possibly someday become an offensive coordinator. He’s capable of doing it. He’s done it in spring games, and now he’s going to have a chance to do it.”
Then came the hint that there might be more to this decision than meets the eye.
“Maybe he can do it better than me,” Spurrier said of his son. “Maybe that’s the reason, too.”
Less than a year ago, Spurrier boasted that he was among a dying breed of college coaches who still called their own plays. Spurrier went so far as to say he would quit coaching if he could no longer call the plays.
“The older you get, you start to learn maybe there is a better way to do it,” Spurrier says. “Whereas, two to three years earlier, you would say, ‘Hey, if I can’t call the plays I need to give it up.’ Obviously, then you get to that age and say, ‘I wish I hadn’t said that.’”
Perhaps what we are seeing is a late maturation of Spurrier as a coach. I do not recall him ever taking back one of the many jabs he took at opposing coaches or schools over the years. Furthermore, I would be surprised if he ever previously admitted that maybe someone else — even his own son — could coach part of the game better than he could.
So maybe it took until his fourth season of his third college head-coaching job to realize he no longer needs to spend an inordinate amount of time developing a game plan each week. Maybe Spurrier finally has figured out that it is best for him and the USC program to delegate authority.
Spurrier has had difficulty with that in the past. With every hiring of a defensive coordinator, Spurrier has turned over control of that unit to the new guy. Inevitably, when the defense did not produce desired results, Spurrier jumped in to take charge.
There is precedent in turning the playcalling over to someone else, both for Spurrier and for USC, and neither situation turned out well.
Six games into the 2003 season with the Redskins, Spurrier let his offensive coordinator, Hugh Jackson, call plays. It did not matter that Washington lost three of four games before Spurrier took back the offense. By then, Spurrier had quit caring, and the end of that season and his two-year NFL coaching career could not have come soon enough.
About the same time at USC, Lou Holtz attempted to turn over playcalling to his son, Skip. It was a disaster. The father never could let go, and in the end, Lou inexplicably undermined his own son.
Jerri Spurrier, the wife of USC’s coach and the mother of her new playcalling son, was reminded Monday of those two instances. She says neither apply in this case. The Washington situation was a lost cause, and we do not need to go into an integrity comparison between Holtz and Spurrier.
Jerri admits the change will be difficult for her husband. But she is convinced that when Steve makes a decision, he has thought it out well, will stick to it and can handle the consequences. This is a man who decided one day never again to toss his visor on the sideline, and he has not done so since.
Further, Jerri says, Steve is not turning over playcalling duties to just anyone. Bubba has followed his father up and down sidelines and into his office since he could first walk. If anyone knows Spurrier’s offense as well as its inventor, it is his son.
“Bub’s almost Steve at this point,” Jerri says. “They’re almost one mind. They do think alike. I don’t think people will notice the difference.”
Spurrier says he still will carry his play card on the sideline, only that card will be prepared by his son. Bubba will continue to sit in the press box, only he will relay the plays to his father on the field.
USC fans only can hope there is only one noticeable difference in playcalling this coming season. Since Spurrier is not calling the plays anymore, maybe he no longer will fling his play card following a poor play.